Multnomah County pastors become public health champions, pledge to promote eating healthy

December 14, 2011

After years of ministering to the sick and dying, 10 Multnomah County pastors signed a landmark policy Dec. 8 to expand their role, promoting healthier eating in their faith communities.

The signers, who represent a broad coalition of 35, vowed to urge their congregations to eat less sugar and sweetened beverages. Their pledge is expected to affect up to 60,000 people in the metro area, from those who attend churches, temples and mosques where the pledge was adopted, to community members who use the kitchens and buildings.

“We embrace this change,’’ said Rev. Dr. LeRoy Haynes, senior pastor at Allen
Temple, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and chair of the Albina Ministerial
Alliance. “If we can change choices, we can prevent the epidemic of diseases and
illnesses that we see in hospitals and emergency rooms on a daily basis.’’

More than half of all adults in Multnomah County are overweight or obese and
are at higher risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke, according to state health officials.

The pledge signed by the pastors reads that the faith community is “first and
foremost a place of worship and holistic ministry for healthy body, soul and mind.”

Pastor Donna Maria Davis of Bethel AME Church said “It is imperative that the church become holistic. “We have got to learn to eat properly.”

The historic signing took place at Life Change Christian Church in North Portland. Those signing are members of the 1145 Club, which formed earlier this year to tackle the community’s biggest challenges, including violence. The name refers to members’ commitment to meet 45 minutes, one day a week, for one year.

At the Dec. 8 event, faith leaders listed relatives who suffer from diabetes and heart disease. They testified to their own struggles to eat less sugar and drink more water.

“Sugar is the number one drug in America,’’ said Bishop Steven Holt, of the International Fellowship Family. “High fructose corn syrup is in so much of our food.”

Multnomah County has responded to the sharp increase in obesity with a broad strategy to make it easier for people to be active and eat healthy, affordable food.

“We are thankful that Multnomah County has sent out this clarion call,’’ Holt said.

The county’s work has been aided by a $7 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce chronic diseases. Since 2010, the county has:

  • Partnered with seven school districts to change policies, add water fountains, improve running tracks, bike lanes and sidewalks for 88,000 schoolchildren.
  • Helped bring fresh fruit and vegetables into senior centers.
  • Worked with Portland and Gresham planning departments to improve bike lanes, parks and transit routes in neighborhoods where people don’t have the ability to be as active.
  • Awarded mini-grants to corner grocery stores to help them stock fresh, healthy food.

Sonia Manhas, Community and Wellness Prevention Manager for Multnomah County, said change must also take place where people live, work, play and pray.

“To see these leaders step forward inspires all of us,’’ Manhas said. “They’re asking us to expect better.”

Among the pastors who adopted the policy are: Bishop Steven Holt, the International Faith Family; Pastor George Merriweather, Northeast Community Fellowship Foursquare Church; Bishop William Marcus Pollard, Emmanuel Church of God In Christ United; Rev. W. J. Mark Knutson, Augustana Lutheran Church, Rev. Dr. LeRoy Haynes, Allen Temple and Albina Ministerial Alliance; Pastor Wilbert Hardy, Highland Christian Center, United Church of Christ; Bishop C. T. Wells, Emmanuel Church; Pastor Donna Marie Davis, Bethel AME Church; Pastor Matt Hennessee, Vancouver Ave. First Baptist Church; and Dr. Mark Strong, Life Change Christian Center.